From March 29, 2011 — Warner Home Video is releasing “Tracy and Hepburn: The Definitive Collection” on April 12 and I began working my way through the nine movies the two stars did together over the weekend.
I decided to start with the final Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy picture — the 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — because I hadn’t seen it in many years and wondered how this comedy-drama about mixed marriage would hold up in the Obama era.
Although it was fashionable in 1967 to knock the picture for being an old-fashioned approach to social issues — the Stanley Kramer picture had the misfortune of arriving at the end of the same year that brought us the barrier-breaking “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Graduate” — the depiction of a relationship between a young white woman and an older black man was controversial in many places.
People on the two coasts might have scoffed at the notion of Tracy and Hepburn playing glossy Hollywood-style liberal parents who had to come to grips with interracial marriage, but when the film opened there were still states in this country that outlawed the practice.
Watching the movie for the first time in more than 30 years, I was struck by the strange mix of the old Hollywood production style and director Stanley Kramer’s ham-handed treatment of the pop culture of the late 1960s.
An early scene in which a white delivery man and one of the liberal couple’s young black maids proceed to dance their way out to his truck is now excruciatingly unwatchable. As is the sequence in which Tracy and Hepburn go out for ice cream to a San Francisco drive-in (!) which looks like a leftover from the 1950s.
But the core of the film is still very powerful — a liberal couple having their own values tested when their daughter lives out a philosophy they have espoused their whole lives.
Tracy plays a San Francisco newspaper publisher and Hepburn runs an art gallery. Although we are told early on that they are not religious — surprising for a mainstream Hollywood film then and now — one of their best friends is a charming Catholic priest played by Cecil Kellaway. He is shocked when the publisher expresses reservations about the planned marriage.
The picture certainly stacks the deck against anyone who might be opposed to the black-white engagement — the daughter’s intended is a handsome globe-trotting doctor who does vital work for the World Health Organization.
Critics have always raised the question of what the 37-year-old Sidney Poitier character sees in the rather callow recent college graduate played by Katharine Houghton (Hepburn’s niece) but we have to accept the fact that these two opposites attracted each other during a Hawaii vacation.
What really carried the movie then and continues to make it gripping now are the performances by Tracy and Hepburn and Poitier (and a sensational bit of supporting work by Beah Richards as Poitier’s mother).
Hepburn is saddled with a semi-mod outfit in her first few scenes that is distracting — to say the least — but her emotional power is awesome as we see her character quickly accept the happiness her daughter has found and then watch the woman’s anixiety mount as she fears her husband won’t give the couple his blessing.
Tracy is the audience surrogate in the movie. A voice of reason who sees the hatred that will be directed against the couple (and any children they might have) and who isn’t sure he wants his daughter to be involved in the social upheavals that were then swirling in the country.
The Poitier character lays back during the first half of the movie — deferring to Tracy and Hepburn — but then he gets a scene near the end of the movie with his father that is still explosive in terms of what it shows us about the parent-child relationship. Poitier was the biggest star in movies in 1967 and you can see why during this almost overpowering scene.
We might like to think that the “issue” in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is long-settled but the shocking return of public racism after the election of Barack Obama makes much of the movie seem all too relevant 44 years after it was made.